Talmud pages

Shabbat 16

Meet the Samaritans.

On today’s page, the rabbis speculate about the 18 matters over which Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed. In fact, they’ve been doing it for pages now, and we’re nearly at the end. Today’s page works through three topics on which they disagreed: the purity of glass vessels, the purity of metal vessels, and finally whether rainwater collected in a vessel may be used for a mikveh. This last point takes up a healthy third of today’s daf, and yet in the end we read this short declaration:

According to Rabbi Yosei, who said that in this case the dispute still remains in place, the tally of eighteen decrees is lacking.

In other words, as the medieval commentator Rashi explains, this wasn’t one of the 18 cases where the halacha was set in accordance with Shammai over Hillel.

Immediately, the Talmud brings forward a candidate for that 18th point of disagreement. And this will perhaps seem to contemporary readers like one of the strangest, most obscure, and most troubling yet:

Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: On that day they decreed that the daughters of the Samaritans [Kutim] are considered to already have the status of menstruating women from their cradle.

Why would Shammai declare that girls have the status of menstruants — in other words, were ritually impure, in a state of niddah — from birth? Indeed, why would anyone?

The answer, put somewhat simplistically, is that the rabbis hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans were a religious sect in antiquity that had shared ancestry with the Jews. (Actually, that’s not just past tense — the Samaritans are still around today.) Jews and Samaritans also share sacred texts. The Samaritan Pentateuch consists of just the five books of Moses and is substantially the same as the Torah, though they do not hold sacred any of the other Jewish biblical texts. Like the Jews, the Samaritans also had a Temple, though theirs was on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and not Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. This was a point of particular outrage — for both groups.

There were centuries of animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. There’s a famous parable in the Christian New Testament (Luke 10:25–37) in which a man is beaten and left for dead, and then ignored by a passing priest and levite (important Jewish clerics) only to be rescued by a Samaritan — a “good Samaritan.” The parable lands because to the audience that heard it, “good Samaritan” would have seemed an oxymoron. We’ll encounter the Samaritans again and again in the Talmud, where they are frequently reviled for interfering with Jewish religious practice.

Given the mutual animosity, it is not entirely surprising that Shammai declares Samaritan women to be impure from the moment of birth; he doesn’t want Jewish men to marry them, or mix with them in any way.

Putting aside the discomfort we might feel about this passage, there is something else going on here and understanding it will help us unlock more rabbinic discussions of purity. Shammai doesn’t declare Samaritan girls in perpetual niddah because they are impure in some intrinsic or immutable way. Rather, he declares them impure because he does not want Jews to mix with them. In this case, declaring impurity is a transparent move to influence human behavior — and this is not the last time we’ll see it.

Read all of Shabbat 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 22, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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